Sep 14, 2020 This feature was originally published in 2018, and has been lightly re-edited.
Fans of co-op games on PC are, it’s fair to say, spoilt for choice. But even in this heady space, occupied as it is by innumerable classics of the working together bent, there are two games with stand head and shoulders above them all. For my money, at least, Valve perfected co-op nearly 12 years ago with Left 4 Dead. Don’t @ me.
Shooting zombies was a tired proposition even way back in the misty annals of November 2008 when the first Left 4 Dead launched. But Valve imbued the project with its familiar brand of magic, and today there are still thousands of people regularly logging in with friends to chop back those same hungry, undead hordes.
The reason for that is not our devout love for popping scabby heads off of rotting shoulders (though that surely plays a small part); nor is it a manifestation of our communal, unquenchable thirst for Valve games – it’s thanks to a certain idea hidden deep in the game’s bowels.
The key to Left 4 Dead’s longevity is a nifty, much-discussed piece of a technology called the AI Director. I imagine this enigmatic, coded facsimile of George Romero is holed up in a virtual control room somewhere just out of view, overseeing everything as you work your way through L4D’s frantic set of interactive horror vignettes.
It knows when your ammunition is running low. It knows when you stray too far from your buddies. It’s always watching.
It knows when you stray too far from your buddies. It’s always watching
Oh, and it’s a master of suspense, too: it plays cruel tricks on you by cueing ominous music during quiet moments; it teases you with a stash of ammunition that is sat just outside your reach, perhaps in a dark corner, where something awful might be lurking; and, just when you’re at your most vulnerable, it spawns an overwhelming horde of unrelenting zombies for you to deal with.
Valve’s AI Director analyses everything you and your buddies do as you shoot your way through Left 4 Dead’s levels and varies the pacing, difficulty, and mood in response. Its job is to make every playthrough of the game different but, more than that, it aims to deliver a thrilling experience whether it is your first time playing or your thousandth. And it’s really good at its job.
As a result, every step you take in Left 4 Dead feels as if it was painstakingly crafted by a team of narrative specialists. Nothing about Left 4 Dead feels randomly generated. The game whips up truly gripping, one-of-a-kind scenarios on the hoof – scenarios no one but you and your buddies could ever call their own.
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Left 4 Dead is a freewheeling, improvised play, performed differently every time. It’s so good, in fact, that I suspect the game will still be capable of surprising us in another ten years’ time.